social media apps on phone, including Pinterest
The rise of image search has become a strategic advantage for Pinterest PHOTO: Jason Howie

Marketers and consumers have long turned to search engines for convenience. But as our interfaces have changed and our options for media have broadened, our needs for search capabilities have also become more nuanced.

One nuance being explored more deeply these days is image search. People are using their smartphones to create selfies and share fashions they discover. Activities like these have unwittingly increased the number of images placed online — so much so that just by sheer volume, images have become part of the big data discussion.

And because pictures are increasingly being taken of products, services and micro-moments, search engines and recommendation algorithms can now take these images and correlate them to queries and requests.

Developing a Dedicated Image Search Engine 

That means that dedicated image engines have become a new Holy Grail, with Pinterest and Google leading development efforts. The refinement of image search plays into machine learning development as well. 

Images are shared for recommendations, so having a recommendation engine that interprets context well will be especially critical, both for image search and for software that often works alongside image sharing, such as a chatbots or apps.

Differentiating Pinterest Through Image Search

The rise of image search has become a strategic advantage for Pinterest, as it competes with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for the attention of social media users. Twitter has become known for real-time news, while Facebook’s 2 billion monthly active user count dwarfs Pinterest’s 200 million total.

Clearly, the pressure is on Pinterest to establish unique ways to stand out. So far, Pinterest can boast nuanced usage for specific human interests such as cooking and fashion.

To leverage those interests further, Pinterest managers are reimagining their platform as a visual search engine. That approach gives Pinterest a distinct business model and strategy separate from other social media — less chatty than Twitter, yet helpful like Amazon Echo.  

Pinterest Lens Pairs Up Your Pins 

That sets the stage for Pinterest Lens, which arrived in beta for a handful of users back in February. Pinterest Lens is an app feature, accessed via a camera icon, that links an image captured in the app to pins in a Pinterest account. Users can use Lens to find products that match up with ideas and items represented by the pins.

This can help inspire purchases or spark ideas, based on the pairing recommendations. For example, an image of a can of tomato soup in Lens could be linked to recipes that the user had pinned in a board. Another possibility would be fashion suggestions that could be generated when a user came across shoes or accessories.

Think Pictures, Not Keywords

Ideas like Lens are why many business leaders and marketing experts look to image search as a critical marketing channel. Pinterest founder and CEO Ben Silbermann stated recently on CNBC that he believes that the future of search “is going to be about pictures instead of keywords."

Other Pinterest app features called Shop the Look and Instant Ideas leverage aspects of so-called interactive images that have clickable sections embedded within them. The idea behind interactive images is to provide related information that will retain visitors on the site longer. 

Visual Search Versus Advertising 

Pinterest’s emphasis on these features is notable versus other social media platforms. Many have relied on advertising to entice users, an approach which has encountered resistance lately from the use of ad blockers, as well as concerns about mobile ads being placed on questionable sites or adjacent to objectionable content.

Visual search provides an engaging means for discovering products and services, making the refinement of visual search even more critical to differentiating customer experience.

Marketers should review their efforts to get visual with their products and services, because options like those offered by Pinterest will give customers more ideas to consider — ideas that could make the difference between an abandoned shopping cart and an actual sale.